For a serious Super Bowl push, they'll need to return to their run-the-ball, stop-the-run roots
Baltimore is the one team in the playoffs that truly doesn't care whether its game is home or away. Since Joe Flacco stepped under center two years ago, the Ravens have beaten Miami, Tennessee and New England on the road in the postseason. In the regular season over the last two years they've won at the Jets, Pittsburgh and San Diego. That experience will serve them well, given the likelihood of having to win three games on the road, starting Sunday in Kansas City, to make it to the franchise's first Super Bowl in a decade.
If the Ravens do survive January, their most valuable player could well be cornerback Josh Wilson. What a find by general manager Ozzie Newsome and director of player personnel Eric DeCosta. Desperate for help in the secondary in August, they grabbed a proven NFL corner from Seattle for a conditional fifth-round draft choice. Wilson played solidly all season and had a walkoff pick-six in overtime against Houston on Dec. 13, after Baltimore had blown a huge fourth-quarter lead. Wilson shored up what was expected to be a major weakness. Against the Ravens' Super Bowl--winning 2000 defense, opposing quarterbacks completed 55.9% of their throws; this year it was a very respectable 58.8%. Wilson's feistiness is a big reason. He's been better in coverage than the Ravens expected, and even on the apparent biggest blown coverage of the year—Roddy White's catch and run for the winning touchdown in Atlanta in Week 10—White clearly pushed off on the play and should have been called for offensive interference.
The worry for the Ravens? They haven't been dominant at any point this season on either side of the ball. Flacco has had just one 300-yard passing game, Ray Rice two 100-yard rushing games. The defense has stabilized over the past six weeks, but remember the 514-yard debacle at home against Buffalo in Week 7? And Houston's two 90-yard-plus drives in the fourth quarter last month?
Baltimore must put this playoff drive in the hands of Rice, who was brilliant running between and outside the tackles in a Week 15 victory over the Saints. In that game and the next at Cleveland, two that the Ravens needed to win, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron let Rice be the workhorse, handing it to him 56 times, and Rice rushed for 245 yards. Cameron has been criticized heavily in Baltimore for being too conservative, and he hasn't taken full advantage of two receiving weapons he didn't have before this season—a deep, physical threat in Anquan Boldin and a speed merchant in Donte' Stallworth. But the way to beat the elite quarterbacks whom Baltimore will have to face to make it out of the AFC is to limit their possessions. And the way to do that is to run Rice, and the clock.
HOW TO BEAT THE RAVENS
Win the battle at the line of scrimmage and stone Ray Rice. When the Ravens don't have success running the ball early in games, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron tends to lean on Joe Flacco's arm rather than Rice's legs; that happened in all of their losses this year except for Rice's 28-carry day at New England.
With Kelly Gregg, Haloti Ngata and Ray Lewis manning the middle, it's hard to imagine the Ravens being susceptible to the run. But they allowed 3.9 yards per carry this year, the most since they arrived in Baltimore in 1996. The Chiefs, with the league's top-ranked ground game, will look to run all day on the Ravens. And the Pats could slam BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead at Baltimore 30 times if that's a matchup.
How AFC fifth seeds have fared since 1990
0 Won Super Bowl
0 Lost Super Bowl
3 Lost conference championship game
4 Lost in divisional round
13 Lost in wild-card round
CORNERSTONE Acquired for a fifth-round pick, Wilson has stiffened a wobbly secondary.